After weeks of throwing and watching from the dugout, Felix Hernandez made his much-anticipated Cactus League debut on Thursday.
Perhaps no person relished the moment of stepping on the mound in a game situation more than Hernandez himself, who has patiently waited for his chance to pitch this spring, while the Mariners have taken their time getting him ready for the season.
Early Thursday morning in the Mariners’ clubhouse, Hernandez blasted Latin hip-hop and dance music at room-shaking decibels to pump himself up, while giddily interacting with teammates.
Why the excitement?
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He was finally getting to throw somewhat meaningful pitches after signing a 7-year $175 million contract at the start of spring training. Since that momentous day, he’s played catch, thrown some bullpen sessions, threw a live batting practice session and a simulated game. But that drawn out process had run its course. He was ready to pitch.
“Finally huh? Now I’m part of the Seattle Mariners,” Hernandez joked.
Hernandez was good, but far from perfect against the Kansas City Royals at Surprise Stadium. In two innings of work, he allowed one run on two hits while striking out two.
“I think it was a better debut than last year,” he said. “I felt pretty good.”
Well, maybe not statistically better since Hernandez threw three shutout innings and struck out four in his debut against the Reds last season.
But from a physical standpoint, Hernandez felt it was better.
“I looked strong from the windup, from the stretch I was a little too quick and opening up,” he said.
From the windup, Hernandez tossed a quick 1-2-3 inning to start the game, striking out Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas.
“He changed speeds well, moved the ball in and out,” Moustakas said. “For being his first time out in spring, he looked really good."
Hernandez was forced to go to the stretch after giving up a lead-off single to Lorenzo Cain to start the second inning. From the stretch, he threw three straight balls to David Lough to start the at-bat. After coming back with a 3-0 strike, Hernandez left a fastball down the middle that Lough turned on, ripping a line drive off the glove of first baseman Justin Smoak and into right field.
Cain, who was stealing on the pitch, scored from first base.
“I’m trying to stay on back leg,” Hernandez said of his issues throwing from the stretch. “I was a little too quick and opening up. I will have to work on that in my next bullpen.”
His fastball was right around 91-92 miles per hour. A year ago, it was 89-90 in that first start.
But he wouldn’t listen to any talk of his velocity after the minor controversy last spring.
“Come on, what velocity (issue),” he said. “At the end of the year, I was throwing 94. This happens all the time. I keep getting stronger and stronger.”
Pitching coach Carl Willis was pleased with what he saw.
“It was nice to see him get back out there and compete again,” Willis said. “I thought his fastball was good. Change-up was right there as it always is. He threw a couple good slider. Most importantly, he felt good. So we’ll see him again in five days.”
** Videos courtesy of the Seattle Mariners